Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ora Pro Nobis

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No matter if you consider yourself a survivor of Catholic schools or someone who benefited from such an education, one thing is true- we all loved having holydays of obligation off from school.  After trick or treating you'd fall into a sugar stupor only to be aroused by the alarm to attend the 8:30 children's Mass at St.  Pat's.  This was not an option.  Every grade has its assigned place in church, and every nun sat there like a sentinel guarding her little troop and taking attendance.  All Hallow's Eve was just the intro to All Saints' Day.  Today's liturgies have cute little kids dressed as saints singing, "When the Saints Go Marching In."  Not for us, the bell would ring, the organ would blare the notes of the opening hymn, "For all the Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest."  We'd open up our Pius X hymnals and sing every verse.  That was just the beginning.  We're talking Pre-Vatican II here folks.  Holydays meant they pulled out all the smells and bells the church had to offer.  Being All Saints' Day the chanting of the Litany of the Saints was mandated, in Latin.

Beginning in Grade 3, I believe, Charlie McGrail (Now Father McGrail, a Benedictine monk) taught us Gregorian chant out of little hymnals.  I still own one with its square notes and and various modes.  To this day I can chant the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.  At age 9 I knew more Latin than I do now, but also explains why I did phenomenally well in vocabulary tests throughout my school career.  Truly Mr. McGrail was a gifted musician.  St. Pats has one of the best organs in the city, and when he played, you felt the bass notes inside you.  His music joined earth to heaven.

After the Gospel, the Litany would begin.  The priest would call for the intercession of every saint recorded in the Church calendar, all 1332 of them.  Ok, that's an exaggeration, but when you kneel for that long it feels like it.  Honestly, there was a beauty to the chant.  Sancte Jacobe, Ora pro nobis.  Sancta Matthia, Ora pro nobis.  Sancte Luca, Ora Pro Nobis.  Sancta Anna, Ora pro nobis.  I've attended a Hopi kachina dance, and I've sat in meditation with Buddhist monks.  I've heard the chants from Mt. Athos in Greece and the call of the muezzin at a mosque.  All of them have the same goal- to lift man from his human existence to glimpse into the Great Unknown.

The next day is yet another memorial day in the church calendar-  All Souls' Day.  One of the traditional hymns for that day is a beautiful poem written by an English nun and sung to the tune of an ancient Gaelic tune (Trinity Sunday).  It's called Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty.  Here are the lyrics:
Spirit seeking light and beauty,
Heart that longest for thy rest.
Soul that asketh understanding,
Only thus can you be blest.

Taste and see him, feel and hear him,
Touch and grasp his unseen hand.
God is all that you can long for,
God is all his creatures home.

All this comes back to me because of something I recall and regret.  A good 30+ years ago I was asked to help clean a part of St. Pat's church basement.  At that time, that beautiful space, was no more than storage.  At one time masses had to be held simultaneously in both the upper and lower churches.  That was decades ago.  What I saw hurt the eyes and the soul.  Statues were tipped over.  Pews were broken apart.  The worst is what I saw in a pile.  I picked up what looked like a rag.  It was a chasuble (priest vestment).  This wasn't any chasuble; it was the very old style, black velvet, silver embroidery with a skull and cross bone on the back.  How many All Souls Day Masses or funerals was this a part of?  What stories could it tell?  There it was in a rag pile.  Not far away was a puddle.  But in the puddle was a stack of Gregorian Chant books used by the schola.  These were mammoth books that a group of chanters would stand around and all read out of one book.  They are mostly found in monasteries.  The beautiful notations and lettering were  smudged from being in water.  There wasn't just one, but a stack of them.  The little angel that sat on my left shoulder told me to take them home, but the one on my right said, "Thou shalt not steal."  I wish I listened to that first voice.  I am haunted that I let them stay there, since I learned all of those pieces of our history- our story- were put in the trash.  It was after this incident that I started up our Parish Archives.  A people who choose not to honor their past, have little hope for a future.

Nest week I'll have more to share on research about Hugh and some thoughts about how he ended up in Lowell.

1 comment:

  1. Steve O'ConnorNovember 5, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    Charlie McGrail. There's a name I heard often as a boy. My father, Jim O'Connor, sang in his choir, and thought very highly of him as a musician and a friend. I'm glad to hear he's still alive.

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